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With Greco: two views of Toledo

[ by Charles Cameron — perception, painting, pre-modern, modern, post-modern, heaven, sky, simulation, John Donne, El Greco ]


It is Sunday.

I find it powerfully interesting that the sky as perceived by painters (our “seers” par excellence) used to be filled with supernatural beings and is currently filled with natural ones — a clear sign that our culture has effectively moved from what one might call a theological vision of the world to a meteorological one (with astronomical trimmings under a clear sky)…

And I see that transition captured very precisely in four words, when John Donne writes:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe…

The “round earth” is that of modern science, the “imagin’d corners” those of pre-modern maps – and angelology.


I have to admit, therefore, that I was surprised yesterday evening to come across an El Greco painting of Toledo that featured the blessed Virgin Mary over the city.

I have long been familiar with his better known View of Toledo, which is entirely naturalistic unless you want to consider storm-clouds as portents of a divine presence —


but the second of these images, from the View and Plan of Toledo, came as quite a surprise…

Here is a detail of the Virgin taken from it, to illustrate the point:



El Greco is famous for painting heaven-and-earth as a continuum – his great masterpiece, the Burial of Count Orgaz, catches the release of the soul from its bodily sheath as directly as Donne’s “to your scattred bodies goe” does to the return of those souls to corporeality at the General Resurrection:



And yet El Greco, like Donne, sees both – Toledo under storm-clouds, Toledo under the shelter of the blessed Virgin…

But there is more here, in this extraordinary painting. There is a map of the territory



If I could say in a nutshell what post-modern is, I would say it is recursive. It recognizes our perceived reality to be a simulation, and is thus always playing with maps and models, as Shakespeare was when he penned the words “All the world’s a stage” to be spoken in a theater whose sign and motto was “Totus mundus agit histrionem” – the whole world enacts a play.

Think of Hofstadter‘s Godel Escher Bach. Of Escher himself, and his image of himself holding his own small world in a glass sphere in his hand…

Think of Korzybski, and his dictum: the map is not the territory.

Think of Gregory Bateson, who wrote:

We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps. The territory never gets in at all. […] Always, the process of representation will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad infinitum.

Astoundingly, presciently – prophetically? – El Greco is already alluding to this, around 1610, in his View and Plan of Toledo.



El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz is in the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo.

El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo is in the Museo de El Greco, Toledo.

Here is the complete text of Donne’s sonnet:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

El Greco’s View of Toledo is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York:


Here we find no blessed Virgin, no angels with their final trumpets — and yet this painting can be viewed as analogous to his Vision of Saint John and the opening of the Fifth Seal — which owes its power to its “otherworldly stormy light” — and thus seen as yet another apocalyptic scene, one which “recalls St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations … a landscape of unearthly power and drama: a dialogue between heaven and earth conducted appropriately by the cathedral spire…”

4 Responses to “With Greco: two views of Toledo”

  1. Bryan Alexander Says:

    Gorgeous, Charles.
    Brings to mind:

    The trumpet shall be heard on high,
    The dead shall live, the living die,
    And Music shall untune the sky!

  2. onparkstreet Says:

    Well, now, you did it again. You made me look at something in a completely different way.
    I always thought I didn’t like El Greco and now I want to scour the stormy skies for signs, so to speak….
    – Madhu

  3. onparkstreet Says:

    Er, sorry about the alliteration. It really didn’t work, did it?
    – Madhu

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi, Madhu:
    One of the greatest poems by my favorite poet — the Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose life and works "converted" me to poetry — opens with this verse:

    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
             dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
             Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
             As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
             Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

    So really — if he can write of "kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon" I don’t see why you shouldn’t give me an excuse to quote him by saying "now I want to scour the stormy skies for signs, so to speak"…
    Scour on!

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